Common Prayer — the power of ‘normal’ liturgy

Sherborne Missal, 15th-c British liturgical book
Sherborne Missal, 15th-c British liturgical book

I thought about making the title refer to ‘typical Anglican’ liturgy or the ‘appeal’ rather than the ‘power’, but power runs deeper than appeal, and common prayer runs wider than Anglicans.

Last week I blogged about my experience at St Michael’s Anglican Church, Paris, France and how much I liked it. There were two facets to the service that really appealed to me — orthodoxy and something at the time that was less tangible but which Bosco Peters pointed out as common prayer. I believe that the latter bolsters the former, which is part of its power.

‘Normal’ eucharistic liturgy in a western tradition, whether Anglican, Roman Catholic, or Lutheran, will follow a particular structure which will have many elements in common with the Divine Liturgies of the Orthodox Churches.

This right here is part of the power of a ‘normal’ liturgy. It is so normal that it is … common. Common prayer, following a structure with certain elements across Christian traditions and throughout space and time. If you go to a liturgical church, chances are that each Sunday you are engaging in ritual actions in your worship of God that are connected with fellow believers in almost every country of the world in a vast array of languages — and they aren’t even all of your denomination!

That’s a comforting thought. The liturgy brings us together. Assuredly, if you set foot in some churches, their liturgy may seem strange, and the ‘common’ elements harder to spot, but they are there. And possibly more of them than you think. Through a ‘normal’ liturgy, the unity of Christ’s Body is demonstrated in a way that transcends the barriers raised in the 500s, 1000s, 1500s, 1700s, last year.

Among these common elements, I want to pick out just a few: God’s word written, confession, the ‘sursum corda‘, and hymns.

God’s word written is an inescapable element of common prayer. I grew up at a church with an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, a Psalm, and a Gospel reading. This is the typical breadth of an Anglican service when it comes to the Bible. The Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, so it is sensible that a significant portion of our worship be spent in giving attention to it.

Furthermore, for most of Christian history the bulk of the congregation would have been illiterate, so the public reading of the Bible was the primary way ‘ordinary’ Christians would meet the written revelation of God. The Bible is central to the liturgy.

Part of this is found in the use of a lectionary to provide the readings. Most mainline churches and Roman Catholics use the Revised Common Lectionary, providing a three-year cycle of readings to give us passages of Scripture tied to the Church year and keeping our attention on Jesus and the Gospel all year through. Some Anglican dioceses still use older Prayer Book lectionaries, and the Orthodox communions use their own lectionaries keyed to their church year.

Such lectionaries have several benefits: they force preachers to preach on things they would not normally choose; they keep a year-round, global focus on the full richness of Jesus’ life and ministry; they, like common prayer at large, bind churches together across time and space. Someone else somwhere else somewhen else has read this selection of Scriptures at Eucharist as well.

Besides these appointed readings, if you start paying attention to your liturgy, and not just the Communion, you’ll find that Scripture is everywhere. And biblical theology is interwoven into those places where the words themselves are lacking. The Bible is central to liturgical worship, not peripheral.

Confession is an important aspect of all Christian lives. Some of the 16th- and 17th-century so-called ‘Puritans’ in England (not all of whom were Calvinist) felt that there was no need for a prayer of confession before Communion — after all, the true Christian will repent the moment he/she is aware of sin, and therefore turn up on Sunday with a clear conscience. This argument presupposes that a. only ‘true’ Christians make it to the Eucharist (and the Church cannot actually police that, as St Augustine observed), and b. Christians are mindful of their sins throughout the week. It also imagines that indidivual prayer and confession are all that matters.

However, throughout the Bible we have examples of the nation of Israel being called to corporate confession. Furthermore, prayers of confession in the liturgy tend to cover a lot of bases — ‘what we have done and what we have left undone.’ Part of common prayer is to teach us corporately how to pray individually. Confessing our sins to God together is a way of reminding us that we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory God and that we are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under His table — and so, as we prepare for the feast, we lay bare our souls to God.

And if you think that your church has a strong emphasis on confession or that the Prayer Book goes too far, read any of the eastern liturgies, or go to the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts some Wednesday in Lent and touch your forehead to the ground and ask yourself what true repentance looks like.

The ‘sursum corda’. You know this bit:

The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up unto the Lord.
Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
It is indeed meet, right, and our bounden duty …

That was straight from memory, but I’m pretty sure that’s correct. I did hear it almost every Sunday for over 25 years of my life, after all. Here is where ‘normal’ liturgy begins to time travel. The power of this prayer lies not in the fact that Christians from Anglicans and Methodists to Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox pray it but that it transcends time as it transcends space.

This piece of the liturgy — ubiquitous until the Reformation — first appears in Hippolytus in the early 200s. From what I’ve read, everything in The Apostolic Tradition is, actually, traditional. Thus, it dates back to the second century at the latest. When we pray a ‘normal’ liturgy, we are praying with the earliest Christians who ever prayed.

Awesome.

And the eucharistic structure remains largely unchanged as well, while the preceding part of the service, ‘the liturgy of the Word’, has visible roots in synagogue worship. A ‘normal’ liturgy is normal for the second century as well as the twenty-first, if not the first.

Magnificent.

Hymns. Here we come to the least common element of all, you might think. What has an Anglo-Catholic choir singing music by Tallis to do with their low Anglican neighbours singing Matt Redman or the Byzantine chant from the Oktoechos down the street? What has John Wesley with the Methodists to do with John Michael Talbot with the Catholics? An organ vs a cappella? A rock band vs a four-part (40-part) choir?

Whatever our take on the musical aspect of hymnography, the hymns do, in fact, unite us. The hymns are a more changeable aspect of the liturgy. A typical Anglican church will have a minimum of three or four, some add more during Communion or at different points within the service. Yet each week, common prayer gives western churches (I admit to ignorance re the East here) the chance to be flexible to the worship and needs of their own situation — we choose our own hymns.

Yet even in this difference, we are united in the praise of Almighty God, whose worship transcends all liturgy, all hymns, all confessions, Scripture itself. This is what matters when we meet together to pray to and praise the Most Holy Trinity, and I believe that there is deep power in a ‘normal’ liturgy, in common prayer united across space and time, through the ages and around the world, to do just that.

*whew*

The Elusive Quest for Common Prayer

I am listening to I Fagiolini’s recording of a 1612 Italian Vespers, having been inspired by their recording of Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts (blogged about here). It is a fitting choice of music for this topic of the elusive goal that is common prayer or common worship, uniformity of liturgy.

From what I can tell, this vision of a truly united, ‘uniform’, common liturgy arose in western Christianity at some point in the Carolingian world. This makes sense to me. Charlemagne, self-styled emperor of Rome, wanted to unite his far-flung realms, not just as Francia but as Christendom. Since they all believed the same (Nicene-Chalcedonian-Dyoethelite-Iconodule-non-Pelagian-anti-Priscillianist), since they were all united once again under one emperor and one law, why should they not worship the same way?

The tale, were it to be told well, would be an exciting journey of ups and downs, twists and turns. Of popes saying that filioque is a bad thing. Then popes changing their minds. Of the Benedictine office being regularised, and of Benedictine monasticism being instituted throughout the Frankish realms. Of saints’ days proliferating. Of new liturgies composed — St. Thomas Becket, Corpus Christi. A good writer could make what was really a slow, ponderous reality a breathless race from Charlemagne to Trent.

But I am no G K Chesterton, who would probably have been the man for that job.

Nevertheless, the liturgy would go off and do its own interesting things with occasional bits of papal intervention to help keep it on track until Trent. The result was not exactly uniformity of worship, not quite common worship to a very great extent. True, most localities used a version of the Roman Rite which, when stripped of a few later mediaeval additions, was still essentially what we find in the Gregorian Sacramentary (700s) or the Bobbio Missal (c. 700) (see the Catholic Encyclopedia and Edith M Humphrey’s new book on worship, Grand Entrance); an example is the famous use of Sarum, very popular in England in the later Middle Ages and at the time of the Reformation.

Sarum, whilst very largely ‘Gregorian’, was still a local variant, if not as localised as the Ambrosian Rite of Milan. I do not believe that the western mediaeval quest for uniformity was ever close to being achieved before the Council of Trent. And I have no doubt that it was not fully achieved after Trent.

The Council of Trent was the Catholic Church’s great reforming council of the 16th century, a successor to Pope Innocent III’s reforming council of the 1200s and not really a predecessor of Vatican II at all by way of content. Both Trent and Vatican II reformed liturgy, but the type of reform at Trent was a much more traditionalising reform. The Gregorian Mass (or, as Western Rite Orthodox call it, the Divine Liturgy of St Gregory the Great) was stripped of certain ‘accretions’ and made to look much more like the mass visible in the Carolingian and other early mediaeval sacramentaries and missals.

With the power of the printing press, the reforming popes of Trent were able to disseminate the new ‘Tridentine’ mass and liturgy of the hours (breviary) throughout western Europe. Trent also saw the emergence of the imprimatur (visible to this day in the front matter of many Catholic publications) upon religious books, thus helping regularise Catholic doctrine and worship throughout western Europe as never before. A friend once remarked that the Catholic Church per se did not exist before Trent; he was speaking doctrinally, of course — but he could have spoken liturgically as well.

But 16th-century liturgical reforms were not restricted to the Catholics of the continent. Most famously amongst those of my ilk were the two editions of the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer of 1549 and 1552, as well as the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer after the brief resurgence of the Latin Sarum under Queen Mary I. Through not only the printing press but government legislation, such as the Act of Uniformity, the Church of England was able to regularise and make more uniform than before the liturgy of her people.

The BCP services as represented on the 1549-1662 axis are among the most beautiful expressions of western liturgy ever composed. They draw upon the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, as well as the Use of Sarum, the Gelasian Sacramentary, the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom, and continental Protestant liturgies (with a nod to Martin Bucer). As an expression of the English language, the Book of Common Prayer may be unsurpassed in its beauty, rivalled only by its near-contemporaries — Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. As an expression of English Protestant theology — a theology at once unafraid of its mediaeval heritage and of the need for reform — it stands as a testimony of balance, truth, and piety.

For a time, the BCP reigned supreme amongst Anglicans, Trent amongst Catholics.

The beginning of the end was 1872, when Anglicanism gave in to the pressures of Tractarianism and modified the format of its regular Sunday morning service. Things sped up in 1904 with a concern that modern people have different needs than those of 1549-1662. And all hell broke loose upon our liturgies in the 1960s, not only amongst Anglicans, but amongst our Catholic brethren as well.

Today, we have as many Prayer Books as there are English-speaking nations. We have Common Worship and The Book of Alternative Services and The Scottish Liturgy of 1982. We have parishes and dioceses creating their own idiosyncratic versions and visions of liturgy, such that you may be treated to a service with an ‘alternative creed’ in one context, and a service with no proper ‘canon’ of the Mass — that is, no proper prayer of consecration — in another. You can pray at home not only with any of a variety of BCPs and official texts, but also very lovely unofficial ones, such as Celebrating Common Prayer from The Society of Saint Francis (online here), or Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community (online here).

Or, if you are perversely retrogressive, you can use a Tridentine Latin Breviary like me (except for in springtime — my second-hand set came missing Verna, and I can’t afford the ones on offer at abebooks).

Common prayer, common worship, liturgical uniformity, was a dream sought by us in the West for several long centuries, and almost achieved in some places for a few short ones. But it is gone. Since I dislike Common Worship, the Book of Alternative ServicesThe Scottish Liturgy of 1982, and the American Prayer Book of 1978, I miss it — although I never lived with it. But I have appreciated Celebrating Common Prayer and Celtic Daily Prayer. I enjoy my Tridentine breviary. And the smorgasbord of liturgies both for private and for corporate prayer and worship is only growing.

Just as some modern worship music is coming to maturity musically, poetically, and theologically, I hope that modern liturgy can do the same.

Out of these varied liturgies representing this real life where our Triune God is worshipped in many ways by Christians around the world, a few beautiful blossoms may be plucked by the discerning. Besides TSSF’s Celebrating Common Prayer and Northumbria’s Celtic Daily Prayer are:

The Prymer: The Prayer Book of the Medieval Era. Robert E Webber has taken the layperson’s shorter Book of Hours so common in the High and Later Middle Ages and produced a useable, readable book out of it. For those unafraid of praying (or skipping) prayers to the BVM.

The Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes. Not exactly new, I know. But these are worth praying by any Christian of interested mind. A couple of editions/translations exist. Keep your eyes open; my copy came from a library booksale.

The Daily Office West. This blog is updated daily; no need to flip around to get your Collect and Epistle in line!

Finally, for those unafraid of the East, there are prayers for morning and evening in the Orthodox Study Bible.

Remember, of course, that these recommendations come from a man who prays in Latin and is enamoured with 1662.

Deus in adiutorium meum intende.

Domine ad adiuvandum me festina.